Photo Credit: Ganna Walska Lotusland
Flora and fauna have a long beautiful history in Santa Barbara. Scattered throughout the destination, parks and gardens offer visitors their own pocket of paradise to spend the afternoon, take a stroll, or encounter breathtaking city views. While some parks and gardens are more well-known than others, these are the ten not so secret parks and gardens of Santa Barbara:
Opera singer Madame Ganna Walska created a Santa Barbara treasure in Lotusland, a world-class horticultural wonderland she planned, planted and developed with dramatic flair from the 1940s until her death in 1984. The 37-acre estate showcases rare species and exotic specimens in a series of themed gardens, including a Japanese garden, a cycad garden, a theater garden with antique statuary, a bromeliad and fern garden, and, of course, a lovely lotus pond, whose graceful namesakes bloom annually around July.
With more than 5 miles of paths and 1,000 kinds of plants, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden — with its mission to conserve native flora — is a window to the natural environments of Southern California. Surrounded by a panoramic view of ocean and mountains, the garden trails take the visitor through arroyo, desert, canyon, and woodland areas. There is also a distinctive Manzanita section, a glorious expansive meadow, and a grove of towering redwoods. A demonstration garden provides inspiration for the home gardener, while the Japanese teahouse and garden offer a serene respite from the hectic modern world.
Named for the heiress who bought and donated the property to Santa Barbara some 40 years ago, Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens is a locals’ favorite — a quiet and colorful spot any season of the year. Occupying a city block, the garden is divided into separate, intimate “rooms” by trees and plantings. For lessons on planting in the Southern California climate, there’s a low-water demonstration garden, and walking paths meander throughout, leading from areas of meadow to lawns to a butterfly garden and the koi pond that delights children and adults alike with its denizens of turtles and ducks. A sensory garden extends the enjoyment of this botanical gem to the visually and physically impaired.
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A masterpiece of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Montecito’s Casa del Herrero was designed by George Washington Smith for George Fox Steedman. And just as the house-museum preserves the owners’ lifestyle from the late 1920s, the spectacular grounds remain true to their Spanish, Moorish, and Californian inspirations. Designed by noted landscape architects Ralph Stevens and Lockwood de Forest Jr., the garden has intricate pebbled paving and, at its center, a long watercourse that descends to colorfully tiled fountains. Complementing long views of mountains and ocean are surprising intimate spaces for flowerbeds, arcades, rose gardens, and productive orchards.
A Victorian vibe lingers in the historically restored gardens of Goleta’s Rancho La Patera and Stow House, the late-19th-century residence of a local lemon grower and horticulturalist. As was popular at the time, the Stow family favored a naturalistic look for their landscaping, with irregularly shaped lawns complemented by dense plantings of exotic tropical and subtropical specimens from around the globe — Norfolk Island pines, Chilean Wine palms, and Canary Island date pines — as well as lovely coast live oaks and a single towering redwood.
Yes, everything really is coming up roses at the A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden at the foot of the Old Mission Santa Barbara. With some 1,500 varieties of roses in every hue, the carefully tended flowerbeds are a fragrant, flamboyantly colorful backdrop for family picnics, formal (and informal) weddings, and leisurely strolls. Named by the All-American Rose Selections as a demonstration garden, the blooms include new top-performing varieties as well as past winners.
Lively Chase Palm Park straddles Cabrillo Boulevard, from East Beach to Stearns Wharf. On the ocean side, palms shadow long expanses of grass that surround a bike and rollerblading path, a skateboard park, and a recreation center. The inland side is an easygoing, green playtime space for families with children. The centerpiece is an antique carousel, but there’s also a shipwreck-themed playground that features surfacing whales, a conch-shell lighthouse, and murals. Picnic tables make this a fun lunch spot, and the beach is right across the street.
We have Italian botanist Francesco Franceschi to thank, in large part, for many of the trees, shrubs and vines that give Santa Barbara its distinctive Mediterranean look. Franceschi Park, on Santa Barbara’s Riviera, is where he had his home and gardens around the turn of the 20th century. A sandstone bust here memorializes the man who introduced plants from around the world and acclimatized them to California, but a better tribute is probably the park itself, with its jaw-dropping view of city and sea and wonderful array of characteristic greenery. Fifteen acres of mostly rustic trails wind through the grounds, a perfect place to picnic, read a book, or simply revel in Franceschi’s legacy.
You’ll need a reservation to enjoy the natural garden that is Arroyo Hondo Preserve, but it’s worth a little advance planning to explore this 782-acre park along US 101 in Goleta. Hikers can follow several trails through the canyon, choosing from leisurely walks along a streambed to more vigorous uphill challenges. There are remnants of past residents here, too. The Chumash lived here, and the Ortega family’s old adobe home still stands. The so-called Outlaw Trails pay homage to highway robbers like Joaquin Murrieta, a real-life Zorro, who is said to have hidden out here in the mid-1800s.
On the bluffs above Arroyo Burro Beach, you’ll find the Douglas Family Preserve, a favorite open-space recreation area for Mesa neighborhood residents. Three miles of trails crisscross the property, through southern oak woodland, coastal bluff scrub, grassland, as well as coastal live oaks, Monterey pines and cypress. It’s all easily accessible to cyclists, dog walkers, joggers, and casual amblers. Best of all, some of the paths offer ocean views, with sightings of dolphins and whales at certain times of the year. Haven’t you always hankered to cry, “Thar she blows!”?
And here’s a bonus to the list of ten great gardens…Every March the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show — one of the world’s largest and oldest — takes place over three days at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, as more than 50 growers set up spectacular themed displays of their blooms. Complementing the exhibits of orchids of myriad species, shapes, and colors are workshops and educational demonstrations, floral arrangements, and a vendors’ tent.